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Bill Straub: Enter fighter pilot Amy McGrath who will need big fire-power against Mitch McConnell

Former fighter pilot Amy McGrath is hoping that politics, like love in the old Sammy Cahn-Jimmy Van Heusen song, is lovelier the second time around.

McGrath, the Democrat who fell to Rep. Andy “Empty Suit’’ Barr, R-Lexington, in a close-but-no-cigar race for the Commonwealth’s Sixth Congressional District seat last November, has emerged from the fog to challenge bigger game – Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root-‘n-Branch’’ McConnell, of Louisville — in what promises to be one of the most closely watched races of 2020.

By declaring her intention to assume the daunting task at this particular moment, McGrath is once again exhibiting the good political instincts she displayed in her rookie campaign. Participating in this race is going to require a lot of dough, particularly since ol’ Root-‘n-Branch will have a virtually unlimited supply. She can reap greenbacks at an early stage while other potential Democratic rivals are snoozing. And it shows McConnell won’t have a glide path to re-election.

Amy McGrath

It also, in a sense, sets her up as the Democratic Party’s standard bearer, with at least two other well-known potential candidates – radio personality Matt Jones and state House Democratic Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, of Sandy Hook – standing on the sidelines contemplating their futures. The attention McGrath’s announcement is drawing makes it seem like the decision has already been made. Endorsements and dollars are flying in and she is, as the old saying goes, making hay while the sun shines.

It will be difficult for either Jones or Adkins to make up the distance McGrath has placed between them. There already have been calls for Jones and Atkins to step aside in favor of letting a woman do the Democratic Party’s heavy lifting. They could have avoided such confrontations had they jumped in ahead of her. Now it appears too late.

McGrath, if she is the eventual nominee, will no doubt wage a good campaign – she showed that ability against Barr – and attract a lot of enthusiasm from McConnell haters and activist women. But it’s difficult to divine a road to victory.

Looking at the numbers, it would seem like ol’ Root-‘n-Branch is set up to be had. He is incredibly unpopular – for good reason – both inside and outside the Commonwealth.

A poll released in February by Public Policy Polling (caution, it’s a Democratic firm) found that only 33 percent of Kentucky voters approve of the job McConnell is doing and a measly 32 percent think he should be re-elected. Consider the source. But Morning Consult, a more reliable outfit, found in April that McConnell had the highest disapproval rating among all his colleagues in the upper chamber. The survey placed his unfavorable among Commonwealth voters at 50 percent — the only senator to have at least half of his constituency viewing him negatively.

McConnell is even more unpopular nationally but that fact will play a negligible role in the 2020 elections. The man who, for some reason, loves to be called the Grim Reaper, has served 34 years in the Senate, the longest tenure in the commonwealth’s history, and he is seeking a sixth term. Ironically, after all those years, he isn’t liked, admired or respected by his constituency. He will never, for instance, achieve the status of the late Sen. Wendell Ford, D-Owensboro, who was beloved from Pikeville to Paducah.

But he keeps on winning.

Six years ago ol’ Root-‘n-Branch was challenged by Democrat Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. In February 2014, nine months before the election, the Bluegrass Poll, the Rolls Royce of commonwealth surveys before the Lexington Herald and the Louisville Courier Journal decided to get out of the news business, gave Grimes a four-point lead, 46 percent to 42 percent. That same poll in October gave her a two-point edge, 46 percent to 44 percent.

McConnell won by better than 15 points.

Now Grimes proved to be a terrible candidate. McGrath will almost certainly prove to be an improvement. But Kentucky voters have shown a propensity for ultimately voting for McConnell even though they can’t stand him, which, let’s face it, is rather odd.

The answer, of course, is social issues. Despite their disaffection for ol’ Root-‘n-Branch, they know he’ll oppose abortion, gun restrictions, taxes, work to bring religion into the public square and place 18th Century minds on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Why break up a good thing?

McConnell will have all the money in the world at his disposal since he mans the controls of the Republican Party’s financial apparatus and will undoubtedly resort to the viciousness for which he has become notorious.

And there’s more! This year he has President Extremely Stable Genius protecting his back. ESG won Kentucky by 30 points in 2016 and there’s no reason to believe his popularity will ebb anytime soon. ESG will be on the same 2020 ballot. Expecting voters to split their votes to such a degree that thousands of Trumpsters then switch over to supporting McGrath seems like whistling Dixie.

Mitch McConnell

ESG has already checked in with a tweet: “Why would Kentucky ever think of giving up the most powerful position in Congress, the Senate Majority Leader, for a freshman Senator with little power in what will hopefully be the minority party. We need Mitch in the Senate to Keep America Great!!”

It also needs to be remembered that McGrath, despite running a stellar campaign and airing some of the best political ads of this generation, lost to Barr, a back-bencher of the third rank with ordinary credentials, by three points in what was a huge Democratic year nationwide. The Sixth District is one of two spots in the Commonwealth – the Third District in Louisville being the other – where a Democrat might stand a chance at a congressional seat. But she couldn’t make it happen.

Of course it can be said that anyone else seeking the Democratic nomination would suffer a similar fate, although it’s been suggested that Adkins, who finished second to Attorney General Andy Beshear in the recent Democratic primary for governor, might be able to make inroads among rural voters in Eastern and even Western Kentucky. But then he likely loses some of the white, college-educated women vote that would go to McGrath.

So you’re back at the starting line.

McGrath, or whoever emerges from the Democratic pack, might be able to draw an inside straight. Ol’ Mitch did it himself when he defeated incumbent Sen. Walter “Dee” Huddleston, D-Elizabethtown, in 1984. McConnell has certain vulnerabilities that might make Kentucky voters hesitate. One is Social Security.

Ol Root-‘n-Branch led the charge for the tax cut enacted in 2018 that benefitted the wealthy over the lower financial classes. He insisted, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the cut would not affect the deficit or the national debt.

He was, of course, full of beans. The tax cut added about $1 trillion in debt, bringing the nation’s total to, as we speak, about $22 trillion.

Now the debt doesn’t seem to disturb Kentucky voters that much as long as they can keep their AK-47s and prohibit other couple’s daughters from getting abortions. But Mitch is distressed and he maintains the tax cut has nothing to do with it – it’s the doggone entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that are causing the problem.

The issue can be addressed by raising taxes, which is something McConnell is not wont to do. His solution? Cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits, telling Bloomberg News that he would like to “adjust those programs to the demographics of America in the future.”

Cutting Social Security might not be a popular idea. In 2012, the last time the figures were made available, about 20 percent of the commonwealth’s population received Social Security benefits. Some of those payments would go, poof, if Mitch has his way. As of November 2018, there were 912,417 enrolled in Medicare and more than 1.2 million are covered by Medicaid.

At least it’s a start.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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